Chester B. Himes: A Biography Hardcover – July 25, 2017
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- Nikki Giovanni
“A riveting, one-of-a-kind tale of a writer who saw the subject of race from odd, revealing angles.”
- Clifford Thompson, Wall Street Journal
“Chester B. Himes is a bracing journey through the life of an uncompromising writer.”
- Michael P. Jeffries, New York Times Book Review
“Fascinating…Jackson [is] a fluid writer.”
- Thomas Chatterton Williams, Harper's Magazine
“Makes a convincing case for a writer who's always been something of a tough sell…Jackson memorably characterizes Himes' great gifts as a writer.”
- Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“Jackson’s book―big, intelligent and unflinching―is what literary biography looks like when it’s done right.”
- Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle
- Alex Belth, Esquire
About the Author
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Chester Himes personal struggles as an African American in early and mid 20th century would make for solid reading. Yet, it is chronicling the turmoil and strife of Chester Himes’ life in letters where Jackson strikes gold. Beginning with Chester’s earliest attempts at short-story publication, (on a typewriter won in a card game) to competition with Hemingway, and ultimately, the rollercoaster of long-form publication, Chester's journey as a writer elevates the biography above simple journal of historical reference. Clearly an admirer of Himes’ work, Jackson remains objective in addressing the half-truths and the self-serving revisions that populate Himes' early autobiographic novels and short stories.
If Jackson makes a misstep, it is finale and I blame editorial constraints. Early chapters strain at the seams to contain three and four years but the final chapter encompasses the last decade of Chester’s life. Breakneck in pace, the final act reads rushed.
In his introduction, Lawrence Jackson states that he intends his biography as the “big book,” Chester Himes’ life deserves and this is a considerable portrait of the artist. But like best of Chester’s own work, I couldn’t help but wish for just a bit more.
Chester Himes was what one would call a ‘race man’ and his novels reflected that. "But what was holding him back was his everlasting resistance to a world
that did not have a place for a black artist who didn’t emphasize the value of assimilation."
His indictment of America and her treatment of Black people were a consistent theme throughout many of his novels. He was on the scene before Richard Wright and had already published novels to critical acclaim when Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man which opened the eyes of the NY publishing world and they began to look anew at Black authors.
It's amazing that Himes didn’t get the full applause until later in his life, although the talent he brought to the page was universally recognized early on. Chester first began writing in prison, having been given twenty years for a simple armed robbery. He ended up doing seven and a half years, and in prison is where he began his writing career. While the biography obviously focuses on Chester's life, the surrounding history of the cities Chester lived in and life for African- Americans in general is explored to great effect.
At nineteen years old and looking at twenty years, having lived through a prison fire that killed 322 inmates due to failure to act by the administration, "Writing was one activity that helped him overcome lonely isolation and puzzle through the welter of emotions after the fire.......His efforts to deal with the personal tragedy of incarceration, loneliness, physical vulnerability,....launched his writing career."
Himes would send out his short stories to magazines hoping they would bite and he began to have some success, becoming skilled at fictionalizing real life he had watched and experienced. Using characters to express his thoughts on subjects would be become a staple of his writing for decades. Quickly realizing that American whites "wished to read about themselves as forceful decision makers" he began to write prison stories with white protagonists and landed a series of stories in the upstart magazine Esquire.
He would leave prison and pursue writing as a career eventually publishing his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go to modest success a few weeks after the death of his mother. Himes lived from story to story most of his life filling in the lean times with odd jobs or leaning on the job of his wife to support himself. It wasn't until later in life that he begin to make real money writing and publishing, much of it due to his crime series, featuring detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, which he is probably most widely known for. The book Cotton Comes to Harlem was made into a movie that was very popular in the early 70's.
Himes actually found success in France before really becoming a literary name in his home of America. He lived in France, Spain and other places in Europe beginning in the early 1950's and would never officially live again in the United States. He died in Spain in 1984. This biography is one to place on the bookshelf as you may return to it frequently for reference to the publishing industry, for the atmosphere in France where many African-American artists found refuge, for the conditions of 60's America, for the overall struggle of a Black writer trying to make a living, and insight as to how racism can undergird the process of becoming.
I received this review copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.